By Nadine Epstein
Welcome to our Messiah Issue!
The specter of a messiah is alive and well in the 21st century. We may not think of it in these terms, but many of us are wishing for someone to swoop in and fix America’s economy, secure Israel’s future, eradicate suffering and make the world a better place.
Not surprisingly, then, the Messiah is a daily presence in politics. How many people do you know who have expressed disappointment in President Barack Obama because he hasn’t met their expectations to transform the American political system in his first term? I am sure you know at least one, probably many more. They are engaging in messianic thinking by projecting their hopes onto one man (females don’t seem to be taken seriously as messianic figures) who they hope will bring about change on a grand, universal scale. With such expectations, it is easy to understand why so many feel disillusioned, even betrayed.
How many people do you know who believe that one of the Republican candidates will do a better job of “saving” our very divided nation than Obama? I am sure you know at least one of these, too. They have pinned their hopes on one of the current crop of candidates, most of whom couch their political messages in messianic and apocalyptic terms. And not always metaphorically: In January, Rick Santorum suggested that Iran was creating chaos in order to hasten the return of Shi’ite Islam’s version of the Messiah, the Mahdi. Some voters also fall back on messianic language: A 2010 Harris Poll found that 14 percent of Americans and 24 percent of Republicans think Obama is the anti-Christ.
The ever-present longing for a messianic figure is only one reason for publishing Moment’s Messiah Issue now. The Messiah is a complex concept with deep roots that divides optimists who believe the human race is making progress, from pessimists who believe the world is falling apart, and provides solace for or provokes fear in many in between. The idea arose around the time of the Jewish exile, and has had many incarnations. As you will discover in this issue, the search for a messiah has been a wild and messy ride through history, which has left throngs of disappointed believers, as well as new ideas in its wake. It is time to ask a question rarely brought up in a public forum: Does it make sense to believe in the Messiah today or is it an antiquated notion that is holding us back?
Moment’s staff members have poured their hearts into this one-of-a-kind issue. In it, you will:
• Explore the origins of the word messiah, and discover how its meaning has changed dramatically over time.
• Get a taste of messianic thinking in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
• Meet edgy veteran comedian Marc Maron, who once diagnosed himself with Jerusalem Syndrome—an affliction that leads visitors to the Holy City to temporarily believe that they are the Messiah.
• Hear from rabbis representing a wide spectrum of Jewish movements who discuss modern Jewish expectations for the Messiah.
• Read how a broad range of thinkers, theologians, scholars, writers, musicians—even a futurist—answer the question: Is the concept of the Messiah meaningful today? We guarantee that you will hear from people who feel every which way and will come away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the messiah phenomenon. The roster includes Lucette Lagnado, Shalom Auslander, Ruth Messinger, Shlomo Riskin, Mayim Bialik, Amos Oz and many others.
• Meet four of the many Jews who have claimed—or whose followers have claimed—that they are the Messiah: Jesus, Bar Kokhba, Shabbtai Tzvi and the Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
• Get to know families who believe they are descended from King David, from whose bloodline the Messiah is prophesied to come.
Along the way, we take a few humorous detours, including a timeline of End Times. (No, End Times crazes did not begin with the discovery of the Y2K bug.) And while this issue’s book reviews and columns may stray from the theme, you can try your hand at our “Tinseltown Prophets” crossword puzzle and come up with a caption for our messiah cartoon drawn by The New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff.
As you read, it will quickly become clear that there is little agreement when it comes to a subject such as the Messiah. It’s our hope that these cacophonous opinions alongside reported, historical pieces will make it possible for you to set down this issue with a fuller understanding. Not just of the Messiah and messianic thinking, but of Judaism itself. As it turns out, the concept of the Messiah is a terrific lens through which to view and understand our own traditions, as well as those of other Western religions.
With a topic like this, we know some of you will find things that you vehemently disagree with, but know that we have tried to be inclusive and respectful at every juncture. I await your judgment at email@example.com.
Meanwhile, here’s to lively, interesting conversations at your Passover Seder!